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Image of a ferris wheel with people standing and wrapped into their seats
Indian Style Ferris Wheel. Organization of American States, 1961.

Highlighting Science in Indigenous Cultures During Hispanic Heritage Month

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This post is by Kelsey Beeghly, the 2023-2024 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Highlighting the wealth of scientific knowledge inherent in indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central and South America is one way to honor culture and contributions this Hispanic Heritage Month and throughout the school year. Sharing photographs of, and maps reflecting, indigenous cultures with students can be an engaging way to spark curiosity and broaden cultural understanding in the science classroom.

Show students this photograph from Mexico and allow them time to observe it carefully. Ask them to speculate on what the apparatus might be. Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Prints and Photographs to deepen their thinking. Direct students to record their observations, reflections, and questions on the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Elicit connections to scientific concepts, such as simple machines or force and motion, by asking students to specifically observe the angles in the wheel or the body poses. Students could also consider “what if” scenarios, such as what might happen if everyone leaned back at the same time, or what the effect would be if there were more or fewer people on the wheel.

The photograph, taken in 1961, is titled, “Indian Style Ferris Wheel,” a resemblance your students will likely recognize. Students could apply the scientific concepts elicited during a discussion of the photo to develop a model of a Ferris Wheel. They may be encouraged to use creativity to incorporate their own culture while testing their ideas about designing a system for stability.

A map from the early 20th century provides an opportunity to examine a different aspect of the culture of Mexico and the Caribbean. Mexico is a biocultural hotspot and a center of origin and diversity of cultivated plants, which have contributed largely to global food culture. Ask students to examine this map that was published between 1925 and 1950, showing the products of Mexico and Central America.

Map showing Mexico and Central America with words describing what products are produced specific areas
Products of Mexico and Central America.

Students will likely observe that there are certain products that come up more frequently in the map than others, and in certain areas. This might cause them to wonder why such patterns exist, leading into a student-led investigation researching the soil and climate conditions necessary for the cultivation of certain crops labeled on the map. Students might compare these to their local climate’s growth conditions and agriculture.

These images and more within the Library’s collections can be used in the classroom to serve a variety of purposes, such as:

  • A tool to pique student interest, spark curiosity and question-asking
  • An anchoring phenomenon for the content ideas that are applied in the images
  • To highlight and begin further discussion around the science used within the traditions of indigenous cultures

Indigenous scientists offer a rich perspective built from generations of experience and connections to a particular place, with a unique affinity to see the interconnectedness of nature. Sharing this science can also lead into a conversation about how science benefits from a scientific community with diverse identities, with each approaching problems in unique, creative ways.

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